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Liberalism all the way down? …. six hours on a plane with Judith Butler’s Frames of War

December 30, 2012

On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler’s Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie’s latest post, given Butler’s suggestion that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” such that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense” (p.1).

Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war – considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.

Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown …

… “the epistemological capacity to apprehend life is partially dependent on that life being produced according to norms that qualify it as life or, indeed, as part of life” (p.3). This statement is simple, and not new (e.g., Butler’s Precarious Life), but no less linked here to “the ‘frames’ that work to differentiate the lives that we can apprehend from those we cannot” in a way that makes the possibility of contemporary war(s) not only intelligible but also relatable. Understanding that “a life has to be intelligible as a life … in order to become recognizable” (p.7), for me, makes all sorts of incomprehensible parts of war(s) from how “we” don’t count “their” civilian deaths to the abstraction of nuclear warfare that feminists like Carol Cohn have critiqued for decades. “Without grievability, there is no life, or rather, there is something living that is other than life” (p.15), written about war finally makes me see how patriotism operates insidiously so easily to make/produce so many war(s) with an apparent disregard for the life of the ‘other’ – where “nationalism works in part by producing and sustaining a certain version of the subject …in which they are able to render the subject’s own destructiveness righteous and its own destructibility unthinkable. Still, Butler compliments this alluring analysis with what I see as a problematic reading of the role of democracy. Asking who the “we” is that our responsibilities are to during wars, and who falls outside of that “we” (p.35-36), Butler problematizes the liberal mission of democracy promotion – (p.36-37), “if a form of power is imposed upon a people who do not choose that form of power, than that is, by definition, an undemocratic process. If the form of power imposed is called ‘democracy’ then we have an even larger problem: can ‘democracy’ be the name of a form of political power that is undemocratically imposed?” Eloquent, to the point – democracy folds back on itself in its imperial mission. Yet, frustratingly, Butler does not walk away from seeing democracy as normatively valuable – she just sees it as misused. I feel like that stops short of the full potential of the analysis.

I was enthralled by the discussion “the boundary of who I am is the boundary of the body, but the boundary of the body never fully belongs to me” because “survival depends less on the established boundary o the self than on the constitutive sociality of the body” (p.54). In my forthcoming book, I try to grapple with war as sensed, experienced, and felt (following Christine Sylvester’s work) – but this understanding of the body as constitutively social moves on level deeper – it makes the material as social make co-constitutive sense. Still, I wanted to throw the book when Butler’s discussion of Guantanamo Bay detainees’ poetry (chapter 1) felt a little (for lack of a better phrase) “noble savage” – where the suffering and dehumanization of the imprisoned is highlighted – what those bodies “tell us about vulnerability and survivability” (p.59), but those bodies are presumed entirely innocent in the discourse – sufferers who did not inflict suffering – an assumption that seems oversimple at best. Though Butler’s point about the unlivability of those lives is well-taken, the romanticism of them that comes across in the writing of the account of their poetry/lives.

I have written about the gendered significations of Abu Ghraib, and therefore found Butler’s analysis of “torture and the ethics of photography” gripping, especially insomuch as she explores whether it is necessary to consider the photograph pornographic in order to consider the camera/camera operator perpetrators. Arguing that “the scene of torture that includes coerced homosexual acts, and seeks to decimate personhood through that coercion, presumes that for not torturer and tortured, homosexuality represents the destruction of one’s being” (p.90), Butler nonetheless contends that it is not “the eroticized seeing” that is the problem but instead the sexualized understanding of the humanized and the dehumanized. This careful analysis blew me away, but then was paired with what can only be understood as an unreflected view of pornography, as something that has “many non-violent versions and several genres that are clearly ‘vanilla’ at best, and whose worst crime seems to be the failure to supply an innovative plot” (p.91). Whatever one thinks of people like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin’s critiques of pornography, certainly an analysis of pornography as separable from gender subordination in its entirety seems …not up to the quality of the analysis surrounding it.

Continuing to think about sexual politics, Butler is interested in how the “Arab man” is constituted as violable by and afraid of (homo)sexualization – “I want to suggest that the massive reduction of Arab life to ‘the Arab mind’ produced a ready object for the US military and for protocols of torture …since, of course, there is no ‘Arab mind’ – it is not possible to attribute the same fears and anxieties across the arab world ….the text had to construct an object it could then manipulate” (128) Butler recognizes an embedded narrative in that narrative constitution of the ‘Arab mind’ that associates approval of homosexuality/sexual freedom with civilization/progress, impliedly excluding the ‘Islamic world’ from that civilization/progress by its impliedly (anti-)sexual values and therein instrumentalizing (personal) sexuality for national/political/cultural superiority perceptions … arguing that “if freedom is one of the ideals we hope for, it will be important to remember how easily the rhetoric of freedom can be deployed in the name of self-legitimation of a state” (p.135). Still, like the engagement above with democracy, Butler stops short of critiquing either the idea/valorization of freedom or the hetero/homo-normative sense of dichotomizing sexualities/sexual preferences … which, again, leaves me feeling like the analysis is a tease, unfinished.

So too with the analysis of terrorism. Butler critiques the idea that terrorism “the very definition of the phenomena involves a description of it as ‘evil,’ then the judgment is built into the definition (we are, in fact, judging before knowing), at which point the description between the descriptive and the normative becomes confused” (p.155). An important point which certainly extends beyond terrorism studies, particularly in gender studies – even more so with the follow-up question, “what formation of subjectivity, what configurations of life-worlds, are effaced or occluded by such a mandatory move?” Yet Butler answers the identified problem of the conflation of meaning/othering/evil with a call for a (reformed) coalitional multiculturalism – one that Butler insists evades the traps of liberalisms through reflexivity, “mobilizing alliances” where “the point, again,is not to dispense with normativity, but to insist normative inquiry take critical and comparative form,” a caution that will help it see past liberalisms’ “blind spots” (p.162). That said, the following analysis feels more than little like the emperor’s new clothes – a new liberalism redressed rather than eschewing liberal progressivism.

Nowhere was that feeling stronger for me than in reading the last chapter, on the claim of non-violence. I feel, and move with, Butler’s analysis of the subject as always and already violent (where “only norms form the subject, and …the norms that do take part in that formation are necessarily violent,” [p.167], and, in fact, “the idea of non-violence as an ethical ‘call’ could not be understood were it not for the violence involved in making and sustaining the subject” [p.170]). But then Butler drops my hopeful attachment as she suggests that it is the very violent creation of the subject that imbues responsibility for non-violent behavior. While this is a sentiment that has had some appeal to me in personal life, it feels both contrived (there’s no philosophical justification for it) and too material for someone who crafts a careful understanding of the relationship between the social and material (especially as she suggests that “non-violence is not a peaceful state, nut a social and political struggle to make rage articulate and effective – the carefully crafted ‘fuck you'” – a statement which, among others, makes it sound like Butler hasn’t considered discursive violence as violence).

It is in that way that Frames of War feels like a tease to me – the joy of typing “fuck you” without the satisfaction of its meaning – the beginnings of transformative analyses their completion. The book matches depth in some areas with shallowness in others – a perhaps necessary side effect of the lucidity of the work it does do. That, perhaps, would be a small let-down – but the bigger one is what I read as an embedded liberalism – biting critiques of democracy, freedom, disciplined/disciplinary sexuality, the separation of violence and the subject, and the co-constitution of self/other/evil – followed by progressivist notions of saving democracy from the democrats, freedom from the imperialists, homosexuality from those who would corrupt it, non-violence from its violent origins, and insidious othering from itself through multicultural alliances. Adapting Hawking, is Frames of War “liberalism all the way down”? If not, why am I reading the conflict into it? Am I reading a critique of myself/my work into the book? And if it is “liberalism all the way down,” if a book this alluring is fundamentally just seductive liberalism, is it possible to escape at all?

…then the plane landed.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.